He’s had three series released in the last six months and Akshay Oberoi is on to his next. Better known for his work in Pizza, Laal Rang and Gurgaon than his debut in Isi Life Mein (2010), Oberoi is currently revelling in the response to the shows Illegal, Flesh and High. The 35-year-old actor took time out from his shoot of 7th Sense to talk about his career highs and lows.

Was success harder to come by in films than it has been with web series?
Totally, particularly for someone like me. I believe there are two ways to get work – you luck out and smash it at the box office early in your career, which didn’t happen to me. My Bollywood debut Isi Life Mein, was a flop. Then I chose films like Pizza, Laal Rang and Gurgaon, which were not box office successes, though they were critically acclaimed. But the industry doesn’t care about that. It’s a business and they need to see numbers.

The second way to get work is if your family creates content for you, packages stuff and builds your career. Now the digital guys are looking for actor-actors. The stars weren’t interested in this space. That’s why the content is really good, because casting for digital series has been authentic.

Illegal (2020).

Your Wikipedia page describes you as ‘an American-born Hindi film actor of Punjabi origin’. Please fill in the blanks, from birth to Bollywood.
During the lockdown I was thinking about how I ended up where I am. Those questions don’t occur to you while you are running the race but only when you stop running.

As a 12 year-old growing up in Morristown, New Jersey, I knew I wanted to be an actor. I did a film in 2002 called American Chai, then I went to Johns Hopkins University where I was the only Indian kid studying economics and theatre arts. After graduation, I spent some time at Stella Adler in New York and it struck me that no one with my skin colour makes it there. There was no representation at all. So I thought maybe I can go to India and have an acting career there because people look like me, and I will get parts.

Who were you racing against?
I no longer feel like I am racing against anyone except myself. But earlier I was competing. I would look at people who had a leg-up on me and I would think – if this is a race from Bandra to Kala Ghoda, then they are going in a chopper and I am in a train. I felt I would never get anywhere. But when digital opened up and audiences changed, I felt I could just act and not consider rankings and competition. That’s when I finally started enjoying my career. I never wanted to be ultra-rich or ultra-famous. I wanted to be recognised for my acting.

In a recent interview, you said you consciously wanted to shake off the focus on your looks.
If my first film, the sugary sweet Rajshri movie where I was batting my eyelids and smiling at the camera, had become a huge success, maybe I would be talking a different way. But it was a flop. It led me to introspect and I decided I don’t want to do that again. There are so many good-looking, better-looking men than me in our industry, who are more charismatic. I didn’t want to be defined by this.

Sometimes I feel actors are pop stars in our industry. I wanted to be looked at with respect. I want to leave a piece of soul in what I do. So when Nikhil Rao offered me High and said I want to make you really ugly in the first half, I was like, where do I sign up.

High (2020).

What did it require to inhabit the world of someone like Shiv, with all his angst and addictions?
Getting into that space of a character takes a lot of thinking. I don’t spend time on scenes and dialogue – those are things the director will explain to me. I spend more time working on the character, his subconscious. I should know how my character will react in any circumstance thrown at him. All that build-up happens till the shoot. I have not used substances Shiv uses, but I worked on the guy including reading a lot about how it affects you and how someone observing you will recognise the addiction.

The contrast between your characters, such as the psychotic Taj in ‘Flesh’ and the troubled Shiv in ‘High’, is interesting. Would you say you are a director’s actor?
I think that term can be misunderstood to suggest you an actor doesn’t bring anything to the part and just submits to the director. But I thrive on collaboration. Though I feel the director has the final word, I bring ideas and make suggestions. Of course, it’s up to the director to decide what to keep.

For example, I suggested that Taj would have a slight Bengali accent because his motivation is to fit in. But it was Danish’s choice [director Danish Aslam] to use that idea or not.

High and Gurgaon are other parts I have enjoyed the most. Also earlier this year I did a romantic part in Hum Tum and Them and that was great because the director, Sahir Raza, saw a lighter, charming side to me and gave me a chance to do this.

We had worked together on Illegal and therefore he picked parts of my personality to incorporate into the part of Yudi.

Akshay Oberoi in Flesh (2020).

What are we going to see you in next?
I am currently shooting 7th Sense, a series in which I play the antagonist. It is a cool suspense thriller murder mystery with fantasy elements. I am the new cricketer on the team in Inside Edge 3. In films, there is Subhash Kapoor’s Madam Chief Minister and the Hindi remake of the Tamil film Thiruttu Payale.

It’s taken close to a decade for you to find your groove. How did you not lose heart?
I am a little obsessive. I fixate and can’t get my head out of things, which is perhaps why I have lasted. Otherwise all the heartache and rejection, up until the last three years of my career, would have compelled me to quit. I am tenacious as hell and don’t give up at all. That is my worst quality and my best quality.

For seven years or so, I was so bogged down by the result that I was not actively living and enjoying my career. I tossed that notion out and decided to have fun and play parts that challenge me. And when the shows got attention, suddenly the attention from within the industry also increased and the phone has started ringing a lot more.

Baby Steps (2017).